A 29-year-old employee for Horizon Air sparked panic Friday night when he—for some unknown reason—decided to take one of the airline’s Bombardier Q400 turboprop airplanes from Seattle’s airport and go for a ride before crashing it in a sparsely populated island nearby. The ground service agent took the plane from the maintenance area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at around 8 p.m. and flew it around for about an hour before he crashed on Ketron Island In Puget Sound. Although initial reports said the man was a mechanic for Alaska Airlines, officials later said he was a ground service agent employed by Horizon Air, which is part of Alaska Air Group.
The man crashed the plane either because he was “doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills,” the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said on Twitter. Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor characterized the incident as “a joyride gone terribly wrong.” Law enforcement authorities described the man as “suicidal” and said the incident didn’t have anything to do with terrorism. The man who took the plane died when the plane crashed but no other injuries were reported on the 230-acre island that has a population of 20.
Video posted on social media showed the 76-seat plane doing loops and other types of stunts as a F-15 fighter jet followed it. Two F-15s were scrambled out of Oregon shortly after the incident but were not involved in the crash. “Told F 15s made it within a few minutes of theft of plane. Pilots kept plane out of harms way and people on ground safe,” noted a tweet from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
Recordings of the man’s communication with air traffic control were posted on social media and showed how he was excited but also how he seemed to have realized a bit late the gravity of what he had done. The man, who was referred to as “Rich” and “Richard” in the recordings said he had put gas in the plane “to go check out the Olympics … and uh, yeah.” He also worried about fuel. “I’m down to 2,100,” he told the ATC. “I started at 30 something. … I don’t know what the burnage is like on takeoff, but it burned quite a bit faster than I expected.”
The air-traffic controller keeps a remarkable degree of composure through the conversations, trying to coax the man to land the plane safely. At one point the controller tries to get him to land at a military airfield. “Oh man,” the man responds. “Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there. I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. They probably have anti-aircraft.” The air traffic controller assures him that’s not the case. “I’m not quite ready to bring it down just yet,” the man said. “But holy smokes, I got to stop looking at the fuel, because it’s going down quick.”
In a remarkable exchange, he asks the controller if he could get a job as a pilot if he lands it successfully. “You know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off,” the controller answers. “Yeah right! Nah, I’m a white guy,” he says.
At another point he seems to start worrying about the consequences: “This is probably jail time for life, huh?” The controller refuses to engage: “We’re not going to worry or think about that. But could you start a left turn please?” And then comes a moment when it seems he realizes the seriousness of the situation: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.
Never really knew it, until now.”
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